Wider than Music: A Broad Commentary on the Challenges Facing Scottish Music

ELLE+EXXEMusic business events like Wide Days are more than just informative conferences for artists and promoters; they offer illuminating evaluation and ask challenging questions of the Scottish music industry as a whole.

Making a living as a musician in Scotland, or indeed anywhere, is a daunting prospect these days. Even if you have talent and passion in abundance, it’s often not enough to get by in one of the most cut-throat industries in the world. Album sales are down so individual digital downloads are the primary way of getting your music out there.

That’s the predominant narrative anyway.

Whilst choosing to work in music or the arts has always been a brave career move – unfortunately, our economy is inherently geared that way – it’s easy to overlook just how many resources musicians have at their disposal these days.

“More than any generation before, musicians now have access to the relevant people, access to incredibly useful information, great support from organisations such as the MU and unprecedented access to getting distribution and promotional tools, than any generation before,” says Born to Be Wide director Olaf Furniss.

“Now you can record your music, you can release it and you can make a video for hundreds rather than tens of thousands of pounds. There are numerous online resources available explaining promotion, releasing music and touring. All are geared to helping artists, but in the majority of cases they do not take advantage of what is out there. You can lead a horse to water etc.”

Furniss definitely puts in a shift when it comes to providing this sort of essential information. Along with co-director Michael Lambert, he frequently holds lectures and tabled discussions on prickly issues like how to deal with music management, A&R, music PR and gig organisation at themed social evenings in Edinburgh.

The+Van+T'sA few weeks ago he hosted Wide Days, the annual two-day music business convention that offers opportunities to network and meet similarly minded people. Since launching in 2010, it’s become increasingly recognised as one of the best networking events around.

In addition to the seminars and discussions that were held, there were also multiple events showcasing new artists at the end of the first day. The opportunity to play in front of label owners, promoters and managers is invaluable for artists – the likes of Honeyblood, PAWS and C Duncan were all signed by labels as a result of appearing at last year’s event.

When speaking to showcased act The Van T’s, talented scuzz-rockers from Glasgow, without context I might have assumed they were in fact playing a huge music festival the way they spoke about Wide Days.

“We’re just so honoured to be chosen and be in amongst so many great acts,” said guitarist/vocalist Chloe Van Thompson. “For them to specifically come to us, it’s kind of like, ‘What’s happening?’ There are so many great speakers and people that are knowledgeable about the music industry.

“It does scare musicians when they see the word ‘business’. We’ve never been exposed to that kind of thing before, but we realised it was more on our level once realising what actually goes on at this kind of thing. It’s a platform that gets you in touch with people.”

The fact that The Van T’s felt honoured to be included says a lot about Wide Days’ reputation; more importantly, it also highlights the palpable disconnect between business and grassroots music. Privilege and inequality inevitably crops up in this discussion – it goes without saying that the ‘class ceiling’ remains a significant barrier in Scotland.

There’s been much discourse on this subject within film and theatre industries  – by the same token, a lot can be done to widen access within the music industry.

Wide Day’s first political hustings seemed the ideal place to hold such a discussion. Candidates for the Scottish Parliament election debated issues such as the value of music in the Scottish economy, the merits of the Agent of Change principle  and how to support full time musicians who need to pay the bills between work contracts. The Scottish Greens’ Zara Kitson, who narrowly missed out on being elected last week, observed that the biggest challenge was, broadly speaking, inequality.

She said: “Arts is still seen as something of the middle classes. If you’re not hearing your voice or seeing your identity reflected in arts, media and culture in the music industry, then you’re not going to relate to it or see it as a choice for you. Widening access is about supporting key communities financially, psychologically, culturally and removing all of those barriers.”

Some believe that these barriers are plainly exemplified in the perpetual dispute over what does and doesn’t get state funded. The controversial art project The Glasgow Effect  provoked heated discussions on this very site, for example. Creative Scotland particularly came under fire at Wide Days with Furniss criticising the organisation’s lack of engagement with the event.

“There were numerous retweets of the hashtag ‘Where is Creative Scotland?’ during the hustings,” said Furniss. “It’s a valid question given that almost every music business organisation in the UK had sent a representative to Wide Days.

“In most cases they had travelled up from London. Creative Scotland sent several staff members to SXSW last year, but they seem to struggle with a ten minute stroll from Waverley Gate to the Pleasance.”

“In most cases they had travelled up from London. Creative Scotland sent several staff members to SXSW last year, but they seem to struggle with a ten minute stroll from Waverley Gate to the Pleasance.”

“The fact that someone from the organisation didn’t turn up until the event was underway, and they had nobody there on Saturday, suggests that there is little interest in engaging with contemporary music sector. By contrast, I have been to traditional music events where Creative Scotland managers and directors are out in force.”

Better access and fairer funding allocation aren’t the only major issues needing tackled. For example Creative Carbon Scotland recently produced an entire guide on keeping music festivals sustainable. Naturally, making sure our music festivals are green and responsible is a constant struggle, but there’s a long running debate on whether enough is being done.

During a seminar on the topic at Wide Days, several panellists discussed the need for a ‘cultural shift’ in our attitude to keeping music festivals eco-friendly. However, when asked whether there any new overriding solutions had presented themselves, the answer was a resounding ‘no’ across the panel – ‘simple solutions tend to work best,’ said one panellist.

By and large, most Scottish festivals at least live up to their green remit. Festival organisers on the Wide Days panel variously talked about recycling projects, creating green spaces and using subtle (but not preachy) forms of messaging. Festival organiser Katch Holmes argued that smaller festivals don’t tend to be the problem, especially as they place a greater emphasis on the local area.

“I love that there so many Scottish festivals that are about place and community, as well as music and having a great time,” said Holmes after the seminar. “I much prefer that model of festival to a kind of product organised by a big events company that just book the biggest bands that will sell the most tickets and put them on in a field.”

Pushing bigger festivals to work harder in this area is certainly a noble cause, but it’s also worth noting that the festival climate in this country is constantly evolving – take the increasing prevalence of crowd-funded festivals for example.

There’s also a significant rise in the number of city festivals being held in Scotland this year, from The Big Discovery to Stag & Dagger to Restless Natives festival. These fests are arguably more sustainable and also offer greater opportunities to explore local culture.

1462372013302Restless Natives in particular, which is being held this week, is placing a massive emphasis on regeneration in the city of Glasgow. As well as music, there’ll be several discussions related to accessibility, sustainability and DIY culture.

It’s no coincidence that they’re singing from the same hymn sheet as the Wide Days gang. There’s a growing sentiment that constant evaluation and education is needed if Scottish music is to develop into a more independent, inclusive and sustainable industry.

Yes, Wide Days has been educating artists, promoters and managers on the basics for several years now, but they’re also being encouraged to see the bigger picture. As we enter a new term of the Scottish parliament – not to mention with festival season just around the corner – now is the perfect time for these debates.

Greater public awareness and scrutiny of how our music and culture industries are run can only be a good thing. Rather than stick their heads in the sand, hopefully prominent organisations engage with these various challenges rather than just stick to their own agendas.

On that note, I’d love to read some other perspectives in the comments and hopefully generate a discussion around the subject.

Comments (2)

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  1. Iain Fraser says:

    No mention of Scottish classical music and the work of modern Scottish composers.

    1. Jonathan Rimmer says:

      Wide Days primarily deals with contemporary artists. I’m curious to hear the classical perspective, though. My partner is a classical pianist so I’m familiar with some of the debates around that scene specifically – given the piece is 1500 words, I didn’t want to go on forever! A separate piece maybe.

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